The decision to venture into blueberries was quite a drastic departure for the Mixons, who for the last six decades owned and operated Haines City Electric. Although Gerald Mixon had been a part-time citrus grower since the late 1970s, the family had no experience raising blueberries. So they did their homework and started on a small scale. Blueberry growers in Gainesville graciously helped the Mixons learn the business.
Things are dramatically different today. Gerald Mixon is retired from the family business, and his three sons — Jerry, Keith, and Greg — are overseeing what has exponentially expanded to a 1,125-acre operation with farms in three states and Mexico. While blueberries remain the dominant crop (70% of sales), blackberries account for 20% of receipts and raspberries 10%.
Greg attributes the success of the business to a strong vision and commitment to excellence from his father.
Keith says, “Having the courage to move quickly and focusing on what our growers and customers needed helped us get to where we are today.”
“We’ve experienced continual growth over the last 10 years — some years we expanded by 40 acres, other years it was 200 acres,” adds Jerry.
In addition to owning more than 1,100 berry acres, the Mixons have established a marketing company and brand, called SunnyRidge Farm Inc., to sell its fruit.
University of Florida (UF) blueberry expert Dr. Paul Lyrene says the Mixon family has been innovative in marketing. “They started by marketing their own berries, expanded to market berries from other blueberry growers in the area, and kept growing to become year-round suppliers of blueberries and blackberries, sourcing the berries from many locations in both North and South America to provide a year-round supply for their buyers.”
SunnyRidge — which includes all of Mixon Family Farms as well as more than 125 independent growers in Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, North Carolina, California, British Columbia, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, and Mexico — markets more than 40 million pounds of berries per year. The amount of SunnyRidge berries shipped has more than doubled in the past three years.
“Our goal is to produce at least 10% on our own farms, and we are currently exceeding that goal,” says Keith.
Ken Patterson, partner and general manager at Island Grove Ag Products, was one of the first growers to sign on with SunnyRidge. “We got to know the family and liked that they were new blood in the industry with a vision and a marketing strategy,” says Patterson. “They’re very sincere, and I’m proud to be associated with them.” Being a SunnyRidge contract grower has served his company well, leading to increased blueberry acreage.
All SunnyRidge growers must be GLOBALGAP certified (see page 24 of Jan. 2008 Florida Grower for more on GLOBALGAP) to ensure that high standards in farm management, harvesting, packing, and postharvest field-cooling are met.
“GLOBALGAP differentiates our brand in the world market,” says Keith. “It gives our buyers comfort that our growers have committed to food safety and safe handling practices.”
“Fresh From Florida is also a way we differentiate ourselves in the global market,” says Greg.
Working With Universities
Marketing is not the only area in which the Mixons excel. In the field, they have proven to be leading innovators in the blueberry industry.
“They were first to plant a large blueberry acreage on deep, sandy hills,” says Lyrene. “This required that they work out a system for building and maintaining beds of pine bark and discovering how to grow the crop in such beds. Blueberries are typically grown on acidic, wet land — not on the Florida sand ridges.”
SunnyRidge has research programs with universities in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Oregon, and Mexico to continually test new varieties of berries for size, beauty, taste, and shelf life.
“Highbush blueberry growing in Florida is quite a new business, and much is still unknown about growing the crop,” says Lyrene. “The Mixons have done dozens of experiments to find better ways to water, fertilize, prune, mulch, control pests, and to determine what varieties to grow. UF has tested more than 100 advanced selections on the Mixon Farm at Lake Hamilton, and Jerry Mixon has given the breeding program excellent information on which varieties have survived, grown, and yielded best.”
According to the Mixons, Florida blueberry varieties and growing techniques continue to be experimental and challenging. “Soil conditions are not ideal,” says Jerry. “We have to be creative to manipulate plants to produce when we want them to.”
“The biggest challenge is producing reliably,” Keith says. “The solution is to find analytical ways of measuring and trying to repeat previous years’ success.”
Organics And Other Opportunities
Despite challenges, the Mixons see a strong berry market and foresee future growth. One area of expansion is organics. More than 100 acres in Florida and Georgia are currently in transition to organic production.
“We’re committed to increasing production to meet the needs of our customers — in all product lines, in all regions,” say the brothers.
For the past five years, demand continues to increase faster than supplies, and a large amount of acreage has been planted to catch up with demand. In the world market, the Mixons see a lot of new consumers coming on board with berries, with opportunities in Canada, Russia, and especially Europe and Asia.
“There are also untapped opportunities in value-added products, such as dried blueberries and blueberry juices, which are in development, but right now we are focused on the fresh market,” says Keith, pointing out that blackberries and raspberries have the same momentum and untapped potential as blueberries.
“We’ve been blessed,” concludes Jerry. “So many opportunities have presented themselves.”
When they’re not busy running one of the country’s biggest blueberry marketing operations, you may find the Mixon brothers donating their time and talents to industry organizations. Jerry sits on the board of directors of both the Florida Foundation Seed Producers and the Polk County Farm Bureau. Keith is a board member for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association as well as the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, serving as chair of the organization’s food safety committee. Greg was named to the Produce Marketing Association’s Top 40 Under 40 list, which recognizes young talent in the industry.